Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Six: Circling Savai’I and Completing the South Pacific Sojourn

The sixth and final installment of my short, but amazing trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, and Samoa.  I finally squeezed in some sightseeing in Samoa in spite of my continued transport challenges.  All part of the journey.  

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s house at Vallima

My first true morning in Samoa, I needed to confirm my ticket back to Pago Pago.  This was always a risk, as I had only four days in Samoa (including my arrival day) and a plane to catch back to Honolulu from Pago Pago.  But I thought much of my trip thus far had been relatively “safe” and what was travel without a little risk?  Pale, the Polynesian Airlines guru, worked his wonders.  He booked me on a Polynesian Airlines flight at 7 PM on Wednesday arriving in Pago Pago before 8 PM, giving me a comfortable margin to check-in for the 10:30 PM Aloha Airlines flight back to Hawaii.  The flight was even departing from Faleolo Airport, the large international airport on the Western end of the main island of Upolo, rather than the small airport just minutes from Apia called Fagali’i.  This would make it possible for me to go over to the island of Savai’i and return by boat and encounter less hassle to go to the airport, as Faleolo is just a few minutes down the road from the ferry port.  I should have realized I was taking far too much for granted – but more on that later.

In the afternoon of my second day I headed to the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  Incredibly, due to his often-poor health and his doctor’s advice to seek other climes, he and his family left Scotland in 1887, traveled to America, and then onward the following year for many adventures in the South Pacific, eventually buying land and building a home in Samoa.  Ultimately, his mother, wife Fanny, stepchildren Lloyd and Belle, and Belle’s son’s Austin too settled in Samoa.  Stevenson was popular among the Samoans and when he died there some four years later he was accorded rites fitting someone of great stature and is buried not far from his home.  I could not help but think of the incredible travels Stevenson and his family, and other literati of the period like Melville and Twain, undertook.  I did not have the easiest time getting to Samoa, but it was certainly easier than their trips would have been.  I became quite entangled in these thoughts while enjoying the Stevenson house and photographs on display.  I think I was most impressed by Robert’s dourly dressed mother making the long journey.

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View of Apia Harbor on my flight to Savai’i

Again, in writing it appears I did very little, but I felt the day quite full and pleasant.  I had lovely meals in waterfront restaurants, wrote some email, and arranged my tickets back to Pago Pago and onwards to Savai’i.  I also arranged for my bag to take a tour of Upolo Island and meet me at the ferry port to go to the airport, as I was notified my six-seater plane to Savai’i would take only five kilos.  At first the thought of abandoning much of my belongings for a day and a half threw me, and then I felt oddly liberated to have only the small pack with me.  In fact, I found I had no need for anything I left behind.

Early in the morning of the third day, I boarded the small jet for the 20-minute flight to Savai’i.  I checked in at 6:30 for the 7 AM flight.  About five minutes before 7 an airline official approached me and asked if I was going to Savai’i.  When I said yes, he told me it was time to board.  He stepped over to an open door and then proceeded to take my boarding pass.  It turned out I was the only passenger.  Yes, it was just myself and the pilot on this flight.  And my five kilos of luggage.

The view was beautiful; I cannot begin to describe it.  Like the other islands of the Pacific, Samoa is the product of volcanic action.  Though smaller than the Hawaiian Islands, it was most certainly larger than Rarotonga.  There was the low flat area along the coast, a wide lagoon encircling much of the island, and then sudden sharp peaks in the interior.  And although I heard deforestation is a major problem in Samoa, the islands of Upolo and Savai’i seemed very, very green.  We flew across the channel and saw the two small islands there and the ferry steaming across to land in Savai’i port.  The airport was a very small wooden building with a single airstrip surrounded by a jungle of palms.  I felt very much I was flying somewhere far from civilization, but there was indeed a road, and soon my tourist van picked me (and my five kilos of luggage) up to begin our tour.

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At the Taga Blowholes

We picked up a passenger at the seaport, but deposited her soon at her accommodation and the Savai’i Circle Island Tour became T—-‘s personal Savai’i tour.  Much of the Circle Island tour was simply driving around the island.  It took quite some time as Savai’i is the largest island in Polynesia outside of Hawaii & New Zealand.  Yet despite its size it is sparsely populated, only a two-lane road circling the island.  No roads in the interior except those that lead to plantations.  Very small villages hug the road at intervals.  But there are stretches absent of population, often around lava flows where the land is simply hard solidified lava.  I waded with sea turtles and viewed the rainforest from a 30-foot high suspended forest walkway.

The best stop was at the Taga Blowholes, the largest blowholes in the world.  That day the waves were hard and high, and the blowholes then shot water high into the air, maybe as high as 50 feet.  There was a tremendous “Whoosh” sound as the pressure in the holes would build and the sea water was forced into the air.  Standing some 50-feet away, I was still dusted with a salty spray.

Though the tour was to also include a visit to the only waterfall on the island and a historical site, those were off the itinerary because, as my tour guide told me, there was an active court case involving the land.  This was disappointing as these are supposed to be two of the best sites on the island, but there was little I could do about it.  The weather was turning, the sky darkening, and some rain falling; I was tired and happy to go to my guesthouse.

I stayed at the Lagoon Chalets; a place that had come well-recommended.  I paid nearly US$25 to stay in a two-mattress shack.  This shack came with four walls, a roof, a floor, a shelf, and a bare light bulb.  I was told the light was a special touch not often found in such places.  The $25 also included two meals, though there was a limited menu to choose from.  Actually, there was no menu–you just ate what the manager and the assistant were having.  And it consisted of rice, taro root with coconut sauce, shredded cabbage, carrot, and beet salad, and fish of the day or noodle soup.  It was okay for one night; I could not imagine having taro root with coconut sauce day in and day out.  I had an early night in my room, reading by my bare light bulb, then falling asleep to the lapping waves.

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Wading with sea turtles (they like mango)

I tried some more lazing about the next day.  I was to be on the 2 PM ferry back to Upolo and the ferry terminal was a 20-minute walk down the road.  I woke up and lazed in my chalet/shack.  I had a simple breakfast of eggs, tea, and toast.  I went down to the mini dock, and read a book while sitting on a picnic bench.  Then I simply lay on the deck in the sun.  I moved back to my chalet/shack.  Back to the dining area.  Back to the dock.  And so on.  I could never laze in one place for too long and there were only so many lazing places in the guesthouse area.  The hours until 1:30 dragged.  Then suddenly it was time to go.

I caught a ride with two other guys heading for the ferry.  I bought a water and a Baby Ruth bar before jumping on the ferry.  I did not want to have too much in my stomach on this boat.  I embarked, took my motion sickness tablet, some water, plus a fruit leather and half a small bag of walnuts.  In less than ten minutes after the boat was underway, I regretted having eaten anything at all.  The boat was listing heavily from side to side.  It seemed we were moving more back and forth than we could possibly be moving forward.  There was a great heave and a creak as we listed left and then a pause before we rushed back to the right.  Despite being next to the overworked air conditioner, I began to sweat.  I needed to make a decision:  either remain immobile the entire journey, laying prone on the front bench by the air conditioner, breathing heavily, and trying to keep my stomach down – or find a restroom quickly and be rid of anything that was sloshing about my stomach.  But I knew once I stood up, the time frame to find the restroom was going to be limited.

I bolted upright, scanning the room.  The cold sweat beading on my upper lip.  I saw nothing but seats.  The act of moving my head to look around was extremely unpleasant.  I felt a rise in my throat; I took a deep breath.  I stood and began to walk to the stairs down into the car area.  My balance was off terribly.  I stumbled around like a drunk.  Nothing appeared to be downstairs.  I could see several people laying as still as possible, eyes rolling into their heads, most certainly feeling much the same as I did.  I continued my search for a restroom, groping at benches as I was thrown from one to the other.  I tried to keep the panic down.  I found the restroom.  It was pitch-black, the only light coming from when the door would rapidly swing open on a list.  Inside the restroom was like a boiler room.  The air was humid and stagnant.  I was sweating profusely.  It was as if I were in the height of a malarial fever.  In the dark I found the stall, and well, you know.  I felt weary and slightly disoriented.  After maybe ten minutes I clumsily made my way back to the front bench in front of the blessed air conditioner, the television was screening the movie “Free Willy 3;” I lay down.  I rest quietly immobile for the rest of the hour and 20-minute journey.  Disembarking made me very happy.

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Rainforest walkway

Then came yet more of the Samoan transport waiting game.  My bag, having completed its tour of Upolo, joined me at the ferry terminal.  Once reunited, the driver dropped my bag and I off at the Faleolo Airport three hours before the 7 PM flight.  Despite being the Samoa International Airport, there was almost nothing there.  There was a bank and a restaurant, but locked up tight.  There were also terribly uncomfortable plastic chairs, an ATM, and a restroom.  Luckily, I still had a book to read.  I chatted with a Spanish couple.  I tried various positions to comfortably read my book in those plastic chairs.  Eventually time moved forward and the check-in officials arrived 30 minutes before the flight.  By 7:30 PM we were all waiting for immigration to open.  Once through immigration (in record time), an announcement comes on informing us the flight had been cancelled due to a broken plane.  No one moved.  The announcer tried again.  This certainly elicited reactions.  Lots of swearing and declarations of “no way” and “you have got to be kidding” from the Westerners.  The Samoans and the family from Tonga weren’t happy, but they had more resigned reactions.  We all filed back through immigration, received our departure tax money again, and then went to wait at the check in counter.  There would be no more flights until the next day.  I would miss my connecting flight to Honolulu.

I accepted hotel accommodation in Apia offered by the airline.  The next day I had to return to the Apia airline office.  Despite having been told all flights to Pago Pago were full, an agent managed to get me on a 2:25 PM flight and rebooked me on an 11:30 PM flight to Honolulu.  After five and a half pointless hours at Faleolo airport the day before, I also had the grand opportunity to spend a further eight hours in the equally thrilling Pago Pago airport.

Looking back, I did not see as much of Samoa as I would have liked, but in the visit, I was happy and busy, even considering the long and frustrating transport waiting times.  Overall, I accepted that things just move on their own flexible schedules in Samoa and the people are very kind.

 

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Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Five: Samoan Hospitality and Making the Most of the Journey

More on my three-week trip to three Polynesian islands – I arrive at my final destination, Samoa, and proceed to…get nowhere fast.  Another gentle reminder that in the South Pacific you cannot do anything but slow down, take your time, and smell the flowers.

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Quite possibly the best part about American Samoa

I dislike arriving in a new country at night.  There is the confusion associated with trying to find your way around a new place when the landmarks and signs are cloaked in dusk or darkness.  There is also the very real possibility of being ripped off.  In my experience it is far easier to be taken advantage of in a new place in the dark than when I arrive in the day.  The banks, information booths, transport stations and the like are closed or running on far more limited schedules.  I have more confidence I can thwart would-be advantage takers when the sun is shining.  Whether it is truly the case or I have simply psyched myself up to believe this as truth I cannot say.  But on this trip, I could hardly avoid arriving after dark.  I suppose the Polynesian Islands are less frequently visited and therefore airlines can place those routes on the backburner, or rather on the less popular times.  If you want to go to Fiji or Rarotonga or Samoa, you will have to be satisfied with arriving at 2 am or 12:30 am or 9 pm or simply not go at all.

Despite Rarotonga being such a small island with a small airport, the late night (or early morning, depending on your perspective) arrival was very pleasant.  The terminal seemed to suddenly light up, a beacon to the weary travelers.  The light joke regarding the single baggage claim area brightened everyone.  The cheery ukulele music struck up as soon as the first person set foot in the terminal was welcoming.  There was even a small board with traveler information – from resorts to backpacker – available to the late arrivals.  And someone from the hostel was waiting for me in the arrival area to sweep me into a van and off to the hostel with no fuss and no worries.

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This was long among my favorite pictures from Samoa

Not so arriving in American Samoa.  At 9 PM in the evening there were plenty of people inhabiting the waiting chairs, and standing in check-in lines, but there was very little else to do.  The vending machines were on, but no banks were open, no changing money facilities – not even an ATM that I could see – no restaurants, no tourist information booth, or even an information kiosk were available to the evening arriver.  This to me only heightens the confusion and immediately sets the traveler ill at ease.   There hadn’t been a shred of food available on the two-and-a-half-hour flight from Rarotonga; I was ravenous.  There was no one to ask about a good hotel or hotel rates.  I simply asked a security guard, and he told me the closest hotel was the Pago Pago Airport Hotel.  As my greatest ambition in American Samoa was to find the quickest way out and on to Western Samoa, I thought closest would be best – even at US$85 a night.  Though that may sound high, it is actually in the low range of accommodation costs in American Samoa.  Welcome to America.

My brief stay in American Samoa seemed as typically American as one can imagine.  I stayed in a relatively expensive hotel, watched CNN and Jay Leno and several other shows I cannot remember, I could not walk anywhere and thus had to be transported to the hotel in a taxi (in fact without a car you are pretty much stuck in American Samoa) and I had McDonald’s for dinner – the only restaurant still open when I found myself getting settled at the hotel at almost 11.  The proprietor of the Pago Pago Airport Hotel was a large, friendly Samoan woman who drove me to McDs, and arranged for my taxi back to the airport the next day (and even paid for it) – but this was about as Samoan as the experience got.

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Friendly Samoan cops

The next day I headed to the airport around 10:30 as the first flight to Apia in Western Samoa left at 11 am.  I had no ticket.  As there were no airport staff around except for one check-in agent, and a few other random people who flanked the agent whose role was unclear, the only way to find out information was to stand in line.  This was the first time I have ever tried to check in to a flight on which I do not have a ticket.  But I gather that although this might be odd for me, it is not too terribly unusual in Samoa.  Quite a number of activities seem very flexible.

At the counter the agent told me to wait, someone would be along to help.  The agent would be right back; there was another foreigner also waiting to do the same.  And so, we waited.  Some friendly Samoans hanging around the counter engaged me in conversation.  A ticket agent arrived, told us to meet him in the Polynesian Air office, then immediately disappeared.  It took myself and the other foreigner some 30 minutes to find the office.  Tickets were sorted out; however, only outbound flights could be guaranteed; we would have to set the return in Apia the following day.  At least I had a ticket to Apia for 1:45 PM.

Back in the line, my new Samoan friends said they would take care of my bags while another woman took me to the local Cost-u-less store for some lunch.  One might think this an odd decision on my part.  My bags were out of sight with perfect strangers while I drove away with another one.  But really all they said they would do happened.  My bags were untouched where I left them and the woman drove me to the store.  Later, as I sat in the airport snack lounge (Cost-u-less was closed) the ticket agent asked for my ticket.  He trotted off and had me checked in and my bag taken care of within five minutes.  Samoan hospitality!

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Downtown Apia

The hospitality did not end, but it turned out I was everyone’s new friend and thus needed to reciprocate.  An airport security officer thrust an open can of Mountain Dew in my hand, telling me to deliver it to my friend.  My “friend” being my new check-in helper and bag watcher I had only set eyes on an hour before.  I found myself wandering around the airport gingerly carrying his open Mountain Dew in search of him.  I must have looked terribly lost because another airport official approached me to ask me if I needed help.  I explained what was surely a bizarre story about searching for the owner of the Mountain Dew, but the man did not blink an eye and joined me in my search.  We found Mr. Mountain Dew at the immigration counter, where I handed over the can.

Now I had Mr. Customs to help me.  Noting that I still need to pick-up an order at the snack bar, he tells me he can take my passport and complete all the immigration paperwork for me while I am in the restaurant.  This seems one step too far on my trust-o-meter so I decline.  He decides instead to join me at the restaurant.  He sits at my table, orders a beer (despite being on duty), pays for my lunch, then takes my passport and completes my immigration departure forms.  HE waits for me as I eat, accompanies me back to immigration, then stamps me through.  There he tells me to wait, he will give me a letter to give to his friend in Apia.  I can hardly believe this is happening.  I look around, I am dying to share this bizarre situation with someone, but this must be completely normal in Samoa.  He returns with a letter I am to give to Gary at Polynesian Airlines in Apia, then gives me his telephone number in case I ever need help again in American Samoa.  Then he walked away, and I headed for the plane.

One would think this could not get stranger, but it does.  As I sit down in my seat, 1A, the pilot suddenly turns around and says “T—-, your friend Brian told me to tell you not to forget the letter for Gary.”  How did I get on a first name basis with the pilot and who the hell is Brian?  Brian told me he was the Prime Minister of Anu’u.  The pilot asks me if Brian explained how I was to know Gary when I saw him.  I said no.  The pilot tells me it won’t be a problem as Gary will most likely be the biggest guy I have ever seen.  And off we go to Apia.

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Sunset in Apia Harbor – worth it!

Landing in Apia some 40 minutes later, the pilot reminds me again to give the letter to Gary.  After clearing immigration (which took all of about one minute) I find Gary quite easily.   He is a short but extremely stout man, perhaps as wide around as he is tall.  I say “Gary, I have a message for you,” and hand over the envelope.  Gary shuttles me and the pilot to an office with combination locks on the door.  I am told to sit in the chair by his desk.  I feel I have done something wrong.  He opens the letter, reads it, then barks at me “Who is this woman?”  There is obviously a woman mentioned in the letter.  I say “I don’t know.”  The pilot asks me “Didn’t Brian tell you about this letter?”  I say “No, I just met Brian 20 minutes before the flight.”  They decide the letter has nothing to do with me and I am free to go.  Welcome to Samoa.

Given all the work I put in just to arrive in country and settle in to the guesthouse, it is no wonder I spent the rest of the day doing very little.  I went only on a short self-guided walk around Apia town, the country’s capital and main port.  But I felt very accomplished and happy.

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part Three: Arrival in Rarotonga

The continuation of my three-week Pacific Island travels in the summer of 2004, just after completing a research assistantship in Honolulu.  From the Big Island of Hawaii, I would head 3,000 miles due south to the small 15-island nation known as the Cook Islands.  Named after British navigator Captain James Cook who “discovered” the islands in 1773, the islanders are now considering changing their name to one that better reflects their Polynesian nature. 

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Kia Orana or “hello” in Cook Islands Maori – how lucky to find the #1 license plate

The regional jet departed Honolulu full to the gills.  Many of the passengers were Samoans who would disembark at Pago Pago in American Samoa.  I would continue on to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.  Most of my second leg fellow passengers appeared to be locals, and they all seemed to know one another.  At landing at 12:30 in the morning, the flight attendant announced, “Checked luggage can be found at Carousel 3… Mind you, we have only one carousel.”  This made everyone on the flight laugh.  We needed something to wake us up.  As we stumbled toward the terminal, it suddenly came to life.  The lights were made brighter, a ukulele player began to play and sing, and the two immigration officers opened for business. To get the 22 of us through took only ten minutes.

I had reservations at the Tiare Village Hostel, located just behind the airport.  I made these reservations frantically by phone from the Honolulu Airport when I realized that very morning that booked accommodation was a requirement for entry into the Cook Islands.  Although no one actually checked, I was happy to have someone picking me up at the airport at nearly 1 AM.

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Cooks Corner — downtown Avarua

The following morning, a Saturday, I woke up early as I was told the hostel manager would drive newcomers into town on the first day for “orientation.”  It turned out to be quite informal with the orientation only consisting of the manager just pointing out the market, the banks, the information center (closed weekends), and the center of town.  The tour took just a few minutes.  Taking advantage of the lift into town, I ate lunch at a busy cafe/pizza/ice cream joint in the center of town near the roundabout (the only one on the island), then wandered about town for a bit, bought groceries, and walked back the 30 minutes to the hostel.  As I was quite tired from the flight and early morning arrival, I spent the rest of the day lazing about.

The Cook Islands are a group of 15 islands in the South Pacific.  They are divided into two groups, the Southern and the Northern.  The Northern Group is quite isolated and made up of smaller islands, generally accessible only by yachties.  The Southern Group is the more populated.  The total population of the island nation is about 15,000 with around 8,000 living on the main administrative island of Rarotonga.  The Cook Islands are a self-governing nation in free association with New Zealand.  It has its own government, parliament, and prime minister as well as traditional government districts.  There are eight traditional tribes on Rarotonga, seven of them are led by females.  But more Cook Islanders live outside of the nation than in, mostly in New Zealand and Australia.  The islands use New Zealand money, though they also mint their own, including the very collectible three-dollar bill.

cook islands 10On Sunday morning I attended church at the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC).  The service was mostly in Maori, the traditional language of the Cooks.  The local patrons were dressed in their finest – with women in colorful flower-patterned dresses and traditional straw hats; the men in flowered shirts.   The pews and beams and pulpit are made of a warm reddish medium wood, while the walls are a white stucco and the ceiling painted an aquamarine green – the kind popular in the sixties.  Though it seemed an odd color in and of itself, it worked in this church with its simple stained-glass windows.  Those sitting in the center section were clearly the most serious of church goers.  They stood up first for songs, sang the loudest, and sat down last.  They were also the best dressed.  Those on the lower section’s outer seats seemed the second tier of church goers.  Maybe they had not arrived quite in time to claim the middle seats for the day, but they were still dressed in their colorful finest and sang the hymns with vigor.

I sat in the upper section, which just might be the area for those who treat church more as a social occasion than a religious one.  There were many children up here, in bare feet, fidgeting.  Many simply ran around.  One boy scooted his way across a pew on his stomach.  We moved our feet to let him scoot by.  The boys on the opposite side seemed intent on poking each other as much as possible and looking at some cards they had brought with them to pass the time.  Two young, mischievous girls sitting in front of me played with their rubber bracelets, each other’s hair, and whispered things to each other and giggled.  A young teenage girl to their right sat with her mother or aunt – a very serious churchgoer who seemed to choose the upper section as a perfect vantage point to carefully watch the congregation, maybe so she could gossip later about those she felt were not properly pious.  Her daughter too gave the giggling girls a hard stare, though it was more for her mother’s benefit I think, as she looked as if she longed to join them.

The primary reason I attended the service was to hear the congregation sing, as they are famous for their harmonies.  Indeed, it was lovely.  Maybe, in part, because they sang in Maori?  But also, the men and women sing different verses almost the fashion of a round.  Most of the time the singing was pretty much in tune.  At times, it did seem the words and tune were getting away from the singers and the reverend seemed to stare at the ceiling, on to heaven, willing his flock to find their way back to the harmony.  It was a very enjoyable hour.  Afterwards, the reverend invited myself and the two other hostellers to tea and we might have joined if we were not scheduled to attend something else in the afternoon – Piri Puruto III’s great show!

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Piri Puruto III lecturing us

Piri Puruto III is a 60-something-year-old man who performs his show most days of the week.  On Sundays he includes a traditional Cook Island lunch and dinner prepared in the umu – the underground oven.  We picked leaves for our plates, large leaves for the lunch, and then we weaved our plates for the dinner.  Piri believes everyone should participate in the cooking to truly appreciate the food.  I had to fetch a whole chicken from a bucket of saltwater, stuff it with local spinach, wrap it in noni leaves, then wrap the whole package with larger leaves, tying it together with the spine of the leaf.  After all the food was prepared, we placed it in the umu, and covered with many leaves, with Piri yelling orders at us like children with short attention spans.  He asked us to call him teacher.  He would yell at us, “students, get the leaves!  Get them!  Hurry.  Why are you moving so slow?  Teacher tells you do something, you do it!”

Then the show began.  Piri Puruto III climbs coconut trees.  We all sat in a circle while Piri prepared.  He had changed from his tank top and sport shorts to a tanned leaf skirt, bare chest, and coconut husk helmet.  He chanted in Maori as he entered the circle and began to tell his life story.  Born on one of the other islands, as a child he witnessed the last inter-tribal war.  He moved to Rarotonga as a teen, and then went on to Auckland to participate in boxing tournaments – winning his first title in 1959, and holding on to that title until 1964.  And now he boxes coconut trees.  We all follow him down the rocks in his backyard to the beach, and across to the beach to a magnificent palm, I don’t know how high – maybe 50 feet or more.  He makes some speeches.  Tells us that when he climbs, we must be ready to take pictures.  When he tells us “Students, prepare your cameras!” Then we are to do so immediately, or else miss the picture.  The guy was a complete ham.  But climb the tree he did.  With a rope binding his feet together, he spit into his palms, wet his toes, and scurried up the trunk, high into the air.  At the top he made his way into the fronds, stood atop the palm, picked a coconut, yelled at us to get our camera’s ready, and threw the coconut into the air.  Then he checked we indeed had taken a picture.  On the way down he did some acrobatics, skirting the trunk of the tree, holding the trunk and throwing his feet out to the left and to the right.  He all clapped as we were certainly expected to!  It was all shameless attention, but good fun to watch for sure.  He made his way back down and we headed back to the house for dinner.

Before we could eat though, we had to make fire!  The traditional way.  From the coconut tree, Piri had brought back a coconut, as we needed coconut fiber #1, coconut fiber #2 and coconut fiber #3 to do this properly.  I was a lucky one to help with the fire making, as my spit was used to roll together coconut fiber #2.   Then the men were to help with the logs, and we all had to chant following Piri’s example.  He told us the making of fire was like the act of making love.  The whole circle had a good laugh at this, and he said, “no don’t laugh, I’m serious.”  He said he would translate our chant in English.  It went something like Bang 1.  Bang 2.  Bang 3.  Bang 4.  Bang 5.  Bang 6.  I am man.  You are woman.  Fire!  And he furiously rubbed some bark against the log.  And a spark started.  Coconut fiber #1 is used to catch the spark.  It is then burrowed into coconut fiber #2.  Then the whole thing flamed with coconut fiber #3 and we had a big flame!   The dinner of baked chicken, potatoes, fish, and lamb, with local spinach, coconut and bananas was ready for the eating.  It was all in very good fun.

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One phase of sunset in Avarua harbor

It is fascinating to go back to my diary and stories from this visit.  I remember little of the things I wrote about, but I recall other details.  For instance, standing in Avarua harbor to watch the most incredible sunset I had ever seen.  With the quiet pace of island life, a 30-minute walk to town is not only exercise but an enjoyable activity.  So, one afternoon I strolled from the hostel to the center of Avarua, the Cook Islands’ capital and administrative center of the island of Rarotonga.  I stood marveling at the late afternoon light bathing the green volcanic hills rising behind the Avarua fishing harbor.  Then I turned to face the other direction and my breath caught in my throat.  Even to this day, I have not seen a sunset that equaled the extraordinary beauty of that one.  The sky changed from daylight blue to yellow, then orange, pink, purple, and finally to blue.  Standing alone in the shallow, rocky waters of Avarua bay at low tide just waiting and watching the sun and its light slowly sink below the horizon might be one of the most magical moments of my life. 

 

Pacific Islands Travel 2004 Part One: Big Island Beginnings

Every so often I dip into the email stories I wrote during my pre-State department, pre-mom travels.  I review, edit, and re-package them.  In the summer of 2004 after completing my six-month research assistantship at the Pacific Forum-CSIS in Honolulu, Hawaii, I embarked on a three-week trip to the Big Island, Rarotonga in the Cooks Islands, and then Samoa.  After the trip I would participate in my assistantship final seminar, graduate from my Master’s program, and start looking for work.  I figured this trip would be my last hoorah for some time, as I would soon join the world of government work.  The trip would inspire me in ways I had not expected, and eventually led to my first published op-ed and my second published academic article, both on Chinese influence in the South Pacific.  My stories are sometimes far more about the vagaries of travel – the transportation hiccups, the interesting people one meets on the road, and unexpected adventures – than about the places themselves. 

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Carmen and I stop for a break from Volcano National Park on the way to Kona

My flight left Honolulu for Hilo, on the eastern side of the Big Island, at 10 in the morning and landed an hour later.  I was at the hostel by noon.  As it was a Sunday, there was little to do in Hilo, with most shops closed.  I only walked around a little, had some lunch, and did some grocery shopping.

I met another woman at the hostel who struck me as odd.  She was from north central England, with a thick accent I could barely understand.  What really struck me is her plans to travel around the world for a year.  When I asked her about restaurants near the hostel, she told me she did not know because, as she said, she “did not eat foreign foods.”  I wonder how she will ever survive her trip.  I would love to run into her a year from now and see how she faired.

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Lush green rainforest of Volcano National Park – Hawaii is not all beaches

On Monday I was up early, trying to figure out what I would do that day.  I was thinking maybe a helicopter ride over the volcano, but was still unsure I wanted to pay the price.  I thought perhaps I might rent a car and drive around on my own or to Mauna Kea, but I learned that to return a car to Kona, on the other side of the island (a whole 2.5 hours away), I would be charged an additional $85 for the drop-off charge; and one cannot drive to Mauna Kea in a rental car because the road is bad and the tour companies forbid it.  A rival hostel in town offered stargazing tours to Mauna Kea for the incredible price of $96, even though the stargazing program on the mountain is actually free!  The idea of them raking in nearly $1000 for 10 people with only the cost of gas there and back, perhaps $30 for a van, made me a feel annoyed and I was thus reluctant to give them a call.

On my first day I had met Carmen, a paramedic in the German army; she also wanted to go to Kona.   After two 6-month tours in Kosovo she was granted this five-month holiday.  She asked me what my plans were for the day, suggesting we could go to Kona together.  However, after the unfortunate news from the rental car agencies, we sat wondering what was best to do.  There is but one bus on the island that travels from Hilo to Kona once a day, from 2:30 arriving about 5:30.  It seemed I would have no plan for Monday and much of Tuesday would be spent on the bus.  I was beginning to think my five days on the Big Island would be a total bust.  Then in walked Sharifa – another woman staying at the hostel – doing her masters in Environmental Science at Yale and studying tropical plants, with field research on the Koa tree in Volcano National Park.  More importantly, Sharifa had a rental car, was driving to Volcano National Park, and then onto Kona to renew her car at the airport there.  And she asked if we might like to go along.   Carmen and I practically leapt to our luggage in a single bound to begin the frantic packing.  Sharifa said she would meet us outside in the parking lot across the street.  Packing was done in record time and soon Carmen and I and our bags were cozily ensconced in Sharifa’s beautiful black convertible and we were motoring down the road.

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I fancied myself quite the black and white photographer – this is one of my favorites –  ropey pahoehoe lava

Because Sharifa needed only to pick up a research permit at the Volcano National Park, we had only 30 minutes in the visitor center and a walk on a short trail overlooking one of the craters.   The rich volcanic soil and the high elevation create a lush rain forest atmosphere, and where there are rain forests, there is most certainly rain.  And it rained.  The clouds rolled in across the crater and it disappeared in the fog.  It grew cold and we huddled for some time with warm drinks near the fireplace at the Volcano Inn and looked at the photographs of magnificent eruptions, which lined the wood walls.  Sharifa needed to get her permit and be in Kona to renew her car rental before 5 o’clock and so we piled into the car and headed off.

Once we were some ten minutes out of the park, the sky cleared, the convertible top came down, the CD player was turned up, and we barreled down the road in high spirits.  On one side of the road dark grey glistening volcanic rock sloped upwards to the clouds heading for the peak of Mauna Loa.  On the other side the same moonscape rock dropping downwards towards the sea.  A fascinating landscape with sometimes dramatic vistas appearing before us of the dark blue sea alongside cooled coal-grey igneous rock.  At times it grew cool and would sprinkle some rain and the top would go up on the car.  The wind would pick up and we would feel chilly.  Not exactly the weather one might expect in Hawaii, but the Big Island temperature and climate is amazingly diverse.  In the winter, even the peak of Mauna Kea is covered in snow while the beachside with be basked in warm sun and temps in the 80s.

Hawaii 3As we bid Sharifa farewell at the airport, I made a reservation for my own rental car the next day.  This was a big deal for me as I could not recall the last time I had driven a car.  The Kona hostel, located in a residential area, was not easy to find because there was not a sign at all.   The manager had a weird laugh after just about everything he said.  He was young, around 30 years of age, and although he laughed, he did not seem pleasant.  Carmen immediately told me in the room she did not want to stay there another night.  I also felt bad karma from that guy.  The hostel was new and clean, but the guy made the whole thing feel like an episode of the Twilight Zone.  Carmen and I walked down to the supermarket to get fixings for dinner and spent an early evening in the hostel reading, showering, watching tv, and eating.

We were up the next day to head over the airport to pick up the rental car.  We were out of the hostel before 9 am; we did not say anything to the manager as we left.  The tricky part was getting to the airport.  Although just seven miles out of town, there is no bus because, of course, America.  We tried to flag down a taxi but the first one told us we had to have a reservation.  We asked if he could call in and tell a taxi to pick us up and he said he would, but 15 minutes later and two taxis had passed us in the opposite direction without turning around or stopping.  So, we walked to a gas station.  We asked the woman behind the counter if she would call for us and she did, but it turned out that one company was so busy they were not picking up their phone, the other said it might be an hour.  I thought of Mr. Weird Manager back at the hostel and kept checking my watch.  I had a feeling he would not like it if we checked-out AFTER the check-out time.  There was a man standing in line next to us and I asked him if he was heading by the airport and if he could give us a lift.  A minute later he signals us from the car a thumbs up and Carmen and I get in.

A line awaited us at the rental car counter.  We were back at the hostel by 10:15 to find the door to the hostel locked and neither of our keys working.  Suddenly Mr. Weird pops up from nowhere behind us and in an unfriendly tone tells us our keys will not work.  He opens the door telling us he had already removed our things from the room because of the 10 AM check-out time.  He makes an unpleasant comment about the amount of luggage we have, followed by his disturbing laugh.  He even helps us to take our luggage to the car, but not out of any kindness I am sure.  He seemed quite eager to be rid of us, and Carmen and I felt quite happy to pull out of the drive and see the back of that guy.

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Lava pouring into the sea

We headed back to Volcano National Park and drove around the crater road stopping to take pictures of the lava flow formations, of steam rising from craters, and sniff the sulfuric air.  The air was cold, the sky grey and overcast.  Light misty rain fell.  However, as we drove down Chain of Craters road towards the sea, the clouds disappeared and the blue sky and sea appeared below.  It was a beautiful drive.  The sides of both roads were covered with undulating hard lava flows from the past several decades.  The sight was almost surreal.  The ocean was the most incredible blue.  At the bottom of the road, alongside the sea we parked our car.  The road once continued along the ocean, but with the more recent lava flows it had been closed.  We walked over the hard lava on the road, occasionally coming across buried road signs.  At the end of the pedestrian trail, where visitors could proceed no further as the lava, though grey and cooled was nonetheless still molten under its crust and still inching toward the sea, we could observe the red-hot lava pouring into the sea.  Great billows of steam rose up as it dripped off the island into the sea.  Here I was standing just 100 feet from an active lava flow.  Incredible.

 

Summer 2003 Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part Two: Central and Southeast Anatolia

The second installment of my travelogue from the past. 

From Istanbul I took the overnight bus to Cappadocia.  There is apparently a rule in Turkey that a man cannot sit next to a woman he does not know. Given my Istanbul tea and carpet experiences I certainly understood, but I imagine this rule often ends up creating some hilarity as it did with me.  On the bus a man sat down next to me.  When the bus captain noticed he went in search of a suitable candidate to switch with him.  I was the only foreigner on the bus. He found an old woman in the front of the bus, and convinced her, VERY reluctantly to switch with the guy.  As I watched the woman muttering her way towards me with a gait that suggested a walk to the electric chair, I was not feeling so enthusiastic either.  Especially as she reminded me of the witch from Hansel and Gretel and I expected her to want to put me in the cookie oven too, her obvious disgust at having to sit next to me plain as day on her pasty face. Then her daughter, who looked remarkably like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, came back and in a grumpy sort of passion drama dragged her poor mother back to the front of the bus, leaving the seat next to me empty and much confusion as the whole bus keenly observed the unfolding events. No one wanted to sit next to me.

5278870-R1-023-10After much discussion in the front of the bus a young woman with her child came to sit with me.  When I saw them coming, I thought oh good, oh wait, no, not TWO! But yes.  It seems quite common to save money by buying one seat for mother and child, even when the child is 10 years old, as was in this case.  But they turned out to be quiet seat mates. The problem instead were the two women seated behind me, with their two children, probably 5 or 6 years old, on their laps. They complained bitterly about me putting my seat back because they had children and they would be unable to sleep.  As if it is my fault they bought two seats for four people!  So, the kids kicked my chair, I think at the instigation of the mothers, while they pretended to scold them.  But I did not relent. I was boxed in, but no way was I going to sleep at 90 degrees on an overnight bus if I could put my seat back.

My favorite part of Turkey is Cappadocia.  One may find Greek ruins in a number of places, and beautiful beaches crowded with holiday goers are even more aplenty, but Cappadocia, is really a one of a kind place. In all the countries I have been, I have not been anywhere else quite like it.  Some places of the American Midwest might come close to it, but not quite. The Midwest in my mind has hues of red, but Cappadocia is all white and cream and dusty. The bizarre rock formations created over eons by water and wind are not to be found in the American midwest. Top that off with underground Christian cities and cave dwellings and churches and you are starting to realize the wonders of Cappadocia. Smack dab in the middle of Turkey, it seems to rise, or rather fall, from the Earth suddenly from the highway.  First you are looking out a bus window at flat plains and farmland, suddenly there is a volcano in the distance, snow covered, and then the Earth seems to fall into valleys and cliffs and fairy chimneys and desert brush. Then you have reached Cappadocia.

 

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Ballooning over Goreme

Strangely this is all I wrote about Cappadocia, this favorite location.  I stayed in a cave hotel, my room built into the rock face, the floor covered in thick Turkish carpets, a low table for tea.  For the first and last time, I had a small radio with me and I can remember catching BBC World broadcasts in my cozy cave room. I took a tour around the area.  I took my first hot air balloon ride and succumbed to the charms of my hot air balloon pilot, remaining in Cappadocia several extra days with him.  I took tours of the area during the day or walked the town and shopped and hung out with the pilot when his work day finished.  But he wanted to give up traveling, my upcoming return to graduate school, and move to Turkey.  That was not to my liking. 

 

From Cappadocia I joined a three-day tour further east.   We stopped at Maras where Turkey’s famous ice cream originates; it is a sticky hard concoction of heavy goat cream with the consistency of frozen cream cheese, hard enough that it had to be cut with a fork and knife, but soft enough to melt lazily in one’s mouth. And on top was sprinkled shaved green pistachio.  It was delicious and yet there was something I did not quite like about it. I think it might have been how very heavy it was.  Like a rock it lay in my stomach, its overly cold temperature gave me those chilly ice cream headaches down my spine.

We headed to the 7,000-foot-high Mount Nemrut, where the enigmatic stone heads of King Antiochus’ ruined temple dedicated to himself stands.  We stayed in Kahta for the night, waking up at 2:30 am to leave the hotel by 3 am, to arrive at the summit for sunrise.  The sunrise was a small disappointment as it just popped up suddenly from behind the mountains where it had been hiding.  At least the sun did pierce the bitter cold of a mountain morning.  There was little temple left, but its ruinous state made those pieces still relatively intact all the more amazing.  It is indeed a beautiful location, fuzzy brown grass covered hills rolling all around and not much civilization in sight, except for all us tourists crawling all over the mountain. King Antiochus, created a cult of personality around himself, claiming that he was both a descendant of King Darius of Persia and Alexander the Great of Macedonia, thus manufacturing himself a perfect lineage of East and West.  We were also able to see a fantastic stone relief of this king’s father shaking hands with Heracles, at Antiochus’ father’s tomb, over the entrance in beautiful Greek the inscription could still read almost as clear as day. It was amazing.

 

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Sunrise on Mt. Nemrut

It was a whirlwind day with Nemrut mountain and then Ataturk Dam, then on to Sanliurfa, a biblical town, perhaps one of the oldest towns in the world. Historical/ biblical sites are all around the town with the legendary pool of sacred fish perhaps the one with the most draw.  King Nimrod attempted to cast Abraham into a fire but the fire turned to water and the wood to fish. The fish remain, hundreds of them.  They are holy fish, it is said if someone eats them they will be blinded. So, they are fat and happy fish.  Sanliurfa is a place of pilgrimage for many people, especially from Syria and Iran.

Lastly, we visited the bee hive houses of Harran, an ancient commercial center just 16 kilometers north of the Syrian border.  The architectural style of these adobe homes has remained unchanged for about 3,000 years.  The dark brown clay houses with thin chimneys, which lend them the bee hive name, are cool inside, that was especially good since it was broiling outside. There was also a ruined fortress through which some local children guided me and two Turkish sisters. We were supposed to stay for the sunset there, but for some reason the guide made the decision to head back to Urfa early. This was actually only one of many, many changes the guide kept making, and it was actually starting to wear on my nerves.

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The sacred pool of Sanliurfa

My tour guide, old enough to be my father, maybe even a grandfather, took a “special” liking to me. Probably as I was a single woman traveling on my own, but that is a poor excuse for his behavior.   On the first evening when we arrived in Kahta he tells me it would be better if we would share a room. What? I mean, why?  He tells me that the three Turkish sisters and one daughter will have a room, as will the other two Turkish sisters and the Dutch couple, that leaves me, the driver, him, and the Japanese guy. Uh, yeah. So where does this lead me to think that Mr. Guide and I should be sharing a room? I ask him why he doesn’t share with the driver. He says the driver will not be coming with us to Nemrut in the early morning and he doesn’t want to wake him, so he needs his own room.  Uh, right. So why ask me and not the Japanese guy? I tell the guide I just don’t think it is a good idea, I really should have my own room (after all I did pay for it you jerk!). I was really upset by this lack of professionalism and the fact I had two more days with this guy. And no one else on the tour seemed to have noticed these advances.

The second night he asks if I would like to walk to Abraham’s pool with him. I tell him I am tired. He tells me it will take just 10 minutes to get there, maybe 30 minutes total round trip.  I again say I am tired; he insists it is something special to see at night.  I think, “Why should I not see this lovely place at night with the pool backlit and all the families strolling alongside it because of this guy? When will I be in Urfa again?”  I agree to go for a little while.  The pool is lovely in the evening.  The lit arches of the 800-year old Halilur Rahman Mosque reflect in the waters.  But on the way back to the hotel he tries to hold my hand.  Creep! I sort of freeze up and my hand goes limp and cold. He drops my hand, and continues showing me some special things about the city on the way back, a mosque, the special way the balconies are built, but now I don’t care, I only want to get back to the hotel. We should have had a half day to explore Urfa on our own, but we didn’t, because he changed the schedule.

No incidents on the way back to Istanbul, but now I am bristling.  It is a real shame that such a lovely trip had to be ruined because this guy.  Not only the harassment, but he did not stick to the original itinerary so he could rush back and meet another tour group.  Still, I wanted to get back.  I had a 10 pm night bus to Olympos to catch.

Summer 2003 Adventures in Turkey, Borneo, and Denmark Part One: The Istanbul Tea-Tour

In the summer of 2003, after completing my MA degree in Singapore and before returning to the second year of my other Master’s program in Monterey, CA, I took off on a seven-week adventure through Turkey and Denmark, with a side excursion to Borneo, because if you are visiting places that are nowhere near each other, why not just throw in another completely random destination? I had initially planned to travel for at least a month in China, but the SARS epidemic and the Singapore government response (required deposit to pay for 10-day quarantine after return from travel to a SARS-affected country), forced me to find another country or countries to visit.  

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View from Galata Tower

Immediately after arriving in Istanbul I was in for a surprise.  A visa on arrival for Americans cost $100.  I did not have that kind of US cash on me, so I had to take out money from an ATM.  The woman at the visa counter told me the charge in Turkish Lira would be 160 million.    In my rather jet-lagged blur state I was like, uh, what?  Did you say 160 million? At the ATM I counted the zeros multiple times as I did not want to take out $1000.  All around me other nationalities are paying $20 and the like.  The upside is I am an instant millionaire.

After this initial shock I have found Istanbul to be really wonderful.  I visited Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Sultans and family.  The Harem was perhaps the most interesting.  The location is spectacular, at the edge of the Golden Horn, part of the European side of Istanbul but also on the Bosphorus.  Simply breathtaking.  I also went to see Hagia Sofia; to say it is an architectural wonder does not do it justice.  The Blue Mosque was also on my list.  It stands just across a park from Hagia Sofia, the two buildings facing off against each other, both beautiful.  The Blue Mosque is perhaps most beautiful at night.  I also went across the Golden Horn to the other part of European Istanbul and visited the newer palace of the Sultans, where Kemal Ataturk died in 1937.  Also, a visit to the Galata Tower.  On my second day I did take a one-and-a-half-hour boat trip down the Bosphorus and stayed awake for most of it.  I was having such jet lag and it hit worst at 3 in the afternoon when the trip started. Then the lovely sunshine and I was fighting to keep my eyes open.  But I saw enough to be impressed.  Maybe someday I will move to Istanbul…

5278900-R1-055-26I meant to visit the Grand Bazaar and a hamman (Turkish bath) but I never got to either because each day I had to pass the Carpet Man Gauntlet. Seriously.  I have not met any Turkish women but I have made lots of Turkish male “friends.”

As I stepped out of the Basilica cistern I was approached by a man asking me to visit his travel agency, where I was served apple tea, flattered, and cajoled into looking at tour options.  After I made it out of the travel agency with promises to be back that night to pick up a sample itinerary, I made it only a few steps before being invited into a carpet shop. My first of many. So many.  Here they served me apple tea and then Turkish tea. After more half-hearted carpet sales, flattery, and inappropriate questions I headed out to the palace  As soon as I left the palace and on my way to the Blue Mosque though I was again waylaid. Tea in another shop. An offer for dinner. I hid in a nice place for dinner, but no sooner had left when a guy walking his dog stopped me.  He told me to come with him for some tea.  I said no. He said he just needed a friend and he would be heartbroken if I left on my own. Well, I left.  A second or two later another guy stops me by telling me I dropped some money.  Just kidding he says, but where are you from?  As I hurry away he is calling out something about having tea together…But of course my single status cannot remain for long and I am stopped by Murat (who also sells carpets) and he asks me to, you guessed it, tea, but I tell him I am going to the sound and light show.  Of course, he says he will join me.  I do not argue.  It seems futile.

5278900-R1-045-21The second day was about the same.  I have drunk more tea, seen more carpet shops, and been invited more places than ever before.  At one carpet shop two guys bought me a kebab lunch and a taxi driver gave me a free ride.  He kept driving alongside me as I walked up a hill toward my destination.  I said again and again I would walk.  He asked again and again to drive me.  Eventually I relent and sure enough he drove me to my destination.  I declined to join him for tea.

I would be remiss not to tell the story that I have regaled many of my friends.  The strangest of the carpet store adventures.  Perhaps one of the strangest of my travel tales. It started out normal enough, being asked in to “just look” at some carpets and to sit and have some tea.  I made myself clear – I had no interest in buying a carpet, could not afford one and did not have a home to put one in.  I had a cup of tea and made small talk.  I was invited to the second floor of the carpet shop, where there were even more carpets laid out in piles and on the walls, but there was also a sunlit corner sitting area.  There we sat for yet more tea.  And then, and I have no recollection exactly how this bizarre event came about, I found myself sitting with the store owner massaging a lotion on my face!  It makes me laugh every time I think about it.  I think he said he had some wonderful Turkish moisturizer and would I like to try it?  It smelled like lemon pledge.  I sat for a few seconds, my eyes closed, the sun streaming in, the slow rhythmic circles on my face…when my eyes flew open and I thought, what in the world?!… I stood and hurried down the stairs and out onto the street. 

I feel a little strange writing all of this now.  Two things come to mind – one is a tweet the State Department sent out about safety overseas.  It read: “Not a 10 in the U.S? Then not a 10 overseas.” They caught a lot of flack over it and quickly deleted it.  But it really is so true and something that people traveling overseas should really think about.  When I was traveling in Turkey I was still relatively young, in shape, attractive.  Yet the attention I received was really abnormal.  I was suspicious from the first but entertained some of it because it IS flattering, and also it became very obvious that the only way to avoid a barrage of unwanted attention was to accept the company of one person for a period of time.  The lesser of two evils.  The second thing that comes to mind is while this was perhaps an odd reversal of what may happen to men when traveling and hanging out in particular venues, it was also an extension of how many men feel they are perfectly free to insert themselves into women’s space.  I could not be left alone.  And I accepted at first out of politeness – a courtesy I certainly did not need to extend to any of these strange men – and then out of sheer exhaustion.  I genuinely loved the city of Istanbul.  The history, architecture, culture.  And yet these interactions took up my time and while I took them in stride and found both the humor and the story in it, I wonder how different my trip would have been had I been able to just sightsee without these interruptions?